With a rapidly growing global population and an expanding fashion industry, the demand for both natural and synthetic fabrics has significantly increased. In the early 20th century, synthetic fibres were introduced as alternatives to natural ones to meet demand and reduce manufacturing costs. However, it was not anticipated during that time that these synthetic fibres were also the beginning of a massive environmental problem, in a similar manner as plastic polymers.

Manufacturing synthetic fibres in factories consumed heavy amounts of water, released polluting chemicals into water bodies and hazardous protective processes. With this awareness, the textile industry is now gravitating toward a variety of plant-based fabrics such as hemp or pina (pineapple leaf) and banana fibre – which are both sustainable and eco-friendly and biologically degrades once released into the environment. In this blog, we specifically discuss the banana fibre which is used in some of our premium handmade products. Found abundantly in Eastern India, the banana plant promises to be a sustainable source of eco-material for the handicraft textile industry that employs millions of craftsmen and women in that part of India.

Fig. 1. A banana tree with a banana flower growing in tropical countries.

What is Banana used for?

Fig. 2. Banana strips hung for drying.
Fig. 2. Banana strips hung for drying.
Fig. 3. Interwoven banana strips.
Fig. 3. Interwoven banana strips.

The nutritional and health benefits of bananas are universally known. But did you know that the fibres from the banana plant can be used to make textiles with a natural lustre and great tensile strength? Banana fibre is made from bananas, but not the fruit that we eat. Rather, it is the stems and peels that contain the fibres that can be converted into textile.

The first commercial exploration of banana fibre was done in the Philippines which is home to a great variety of banana trees. Throughout history, many other Asian cultures, including India, have experimented with banana-based fibres. India has gradually surpassed the Philippines as the world’s largest producer of banana fibre. As the global manufacturing sector increasingly started moving to Southeast Asia, textile manufacturers in the United Kingdom and the United States became interested in the potential of the banana fibre. Since then, Western fashion has flirted occasionally with this exotic fabric.

Like silk, the banana fibre is soft on the inside. The outer layer is rough, similar to burlap or cotton. But with continued use, the banana fibre becomes softer and smoother. However, what makes banana fibre unique and environmentally sustainable in the long run lies in the fact that it is naturally insulating and therefore keeps the body cool even when the temperature rises. The fabric is soft and supple. Although it is not as smooth as rayon or cotton, it has a natural shimmer. Because banana fibre is made up of tough outer material, it is a strong and durable fibre. Its tensile strength and spinability are far superior to those of all other natural fibres. The banana fibre in clothing thus feels soft and does not cause allergies. It is also fireproof, heatproof, waterproof, and greaseproof.

Fig. 4. Golden banana textile strips woven with white Eri silk.
Fig. 4. Golden banana textile strips woven with white Eri silk.

However, extracting the banana fibre from the banana stems is not an easy or simple process. It is a labour-intensive process in which the trees from various farmers are transported in trucks first, then stripped apart sheath by sheath and finally the fibres are extracted from the sheaths. For this, the strips of the sheath are boiled in an alkaline solution to soften and separate them. Once the banana skins and fibres have been separated, the fibres are joined together to create long threads which are then spun wet, in order to prevent them from breaking. Afterwards, the threads can be dyed and woven.

Banana fibre has distinct physical and chemical properties, as well as numerous other characteristics that distinguish it as a high-quality fibre. Banana fibre resembles bamboo and ramie fibres in appearance, but it is finer and more spinnable. The fibre in bananas is made of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Moreover, what sets it apart from other fibres is that it is not too heavy and has a high capacity for moisture absorption. It quickly absorbs and releases moisture. It is biodegradable and has no adverse environmental impact, making it an environmentally friendly fibre. It has a fineness of 2400 Nm on  average. It can be spun through nearly anything.

How to care for fabric made from banana fibre
Banana fibre is excellent when steamed. As a low-energy solution to freshen up your textiles, steaming any products made from this material in your shower room or with a gentle iron will help remove wrinkles and creases. Alternatively, you can wash by hand or in your machine on a cold delicate cycle. The material feel is slightly rough at first but it softens with continued use. As this textile is made of porous plant material, it can be naturally dyed. Synthetic dyes would be too acidic for the delicate fibre.

The Environmental Sustainability of Banana Fibre

The banana plant does not require tilling to fertilise the soil. They regrow in the same spot. The plant also does not require any additional land, water or fertilisers to grow. It grows roots that are long enough to hold the land in place, aiding in the prevention of landslides. Due to banana textile’s low water consumption and low energy consumption, as well as the lack of chemicals during the growing and production process, this textile has very low environmental impact. These are extremely labour-intensive textiles to manufacture, requiring both hard work and skill, but once in place, there can be a continuous harvest. Because of the higher costs involved in producing banana fibre, it is usually more expensive than silk. Being organically dyed, if at all, banana fabrics are azo-free, allowing the natural texture to shine while also ensuring that no chemicals re-enter the water bodies. Because they are grown close to or even within small rural weaving communities, they also have short supply chains from the farmers to the weavers. We, at Dzukou, have experimented with banana fibre for some of our premium products such as stoles and journal covers. The emergence of banana and pineapple for textile use is encouraging not just from an environmental point of view, but also from the point of view of the engagement of rural craft communities. The weavers weaving banana fibre in countries like India and the Philippines are usually women. The socio-cultural sustainability of the material almost parallels its environmental sustainability.

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